“To Embrace the Wholeness of Life”

“To Embrace the Wholeness of Life”
A Guiding Light for Joan Drescher
by Susan Bayley

Photo of Joan Drescher and kids at a training of volunteers for Helping Children Cope Programs, a community outreach effort of The Friends of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, MA.

Photo of Joan Drescher and kids at a training of volunteers for Helping Children Cope Programs, a community outreach effort of The Friends of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, MA.

Joan Drescher has been using art to bring light into dark places all her life. Her journey is one of beauty and healing, exploring how art serves the body, mind, and spirit. A corollary to working with beauty and healing is that one is also working with tragedy, illness, and sorrow. Her path has taken her to each of those realms.

She is gentle—not one to stand out in a crowd—but she has firmly stood her ground in living out her purpose. She has a childlike quality that puts people at ease, and an inner compass that points in the right direction. Joan’s work is work of the spirit. 

It was with mystery and confidence that early in her career as a children’s book author and illustrator she accepted an assignment from Ron Moir, who was a board member and volunteer for Parents and Children’s Services in Boston, to create a 10’ x 10’ mural in their new building in Kenmore Square to welcome clients into their healing space. Although Joan had little experience painting murals, Moir had a vision for Joan’s work on the walls. Joan embraced the assignment and created Esplanade, a mural that celebrates the diversity of all life. Creating Esplanade also marked a turning point in her life.

That mural led to another assignment, this one for the Joint Center for Radiation Therapy shared by Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was the beginning of a string of assignments in major hospitals throughout the US and Canada.

In the Joint Center for Radiation Therapy, Joan filled the walls and ceilings with colorful kites, each displaying a healing symbol from cultures around the world, giving children and adults hope as their spirits were lifted up into the sky to touch the gods. 

Following that project, in the Hematology Oncology Clinic at the Floating Hospital of New England Medical Center, Joan painted a series of seven murals, called Symbols of Courage, which illustrate the journey traveled by families and children with cancer. As she worked, families watched and asked, “How did you know? This is exactly what we are going through.” Joan’s murals validated their fears, their losses, their hopes, and their joys. 

While Joan was working on Symbols of Courage, she was inspired by the children with whom she worked in the clinic. She saw that they needed to find a sense of control in their lives, which were largely out of their control. An idea began to take shape: a story for children about a journey of hope and discovery in a hot air balloon. She called it The Moon Balloon. Decorated with a big friendly moon face, the Moon Balloon trails colorful ribbons, sails into a sky, and offers companionship and adventure.

Joan says the idea for the book came to her essentially as a whole, and she had only to draw and write the story until it was ready to use. The brilliance of The Moon Balloon book was not in the story or the colorful pictures, but rather in the interactions that the book creates. Part book, part journal, The Moon Balloon, encourages children to express their feelings that may be too difficult for words. 

Joan began with only several handmade samples for her to use in the hospital as an aid in helping children explore their own journeys with sickness and with health. Like a guided meditation, children imagine themselves traveling in the Moon Balloon, sailing as the wind sings songs in their ears to a field of balloons, where each balloon represents a different feeling. The story allows children to visit the Sun Balloon, the Wish Balloon, and the Giggle Balloon—visits that open up easy conversations about positive things. The children may also visit the Angry Balloon, the Tear Balloon, and the Stress Balloon, each of which have big baskets where children may unload fears, sorrows, and heavy burdens.

The book helps children explore their own journey, and provides an opening for expressing themselves through writing, drawing, and symbols. Joan uses the book as a starting off point to communicate and create with children. She draws as a child speaks, also allowing the child to draw as he or she feels moved. 

Published by The Association for the Care of Children’s Health (ACCH) in 1996, The Moon Balloon has been used around the world as a healing tool by parents, teachers, and other caregivers. The ink was barely dry when ACCH sent Joan along with 725 copies of The Moon Balloon to Dunblane, Scotland to a community that had been thrown into turmoil by the shooting deaths of sixteen kindergarten children and their teacher. The book is still being used in Dunblane today. It has also been used as a resource in Italy, Japan, the Philippines, and around the US, most notably after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Joan became the Artist in Residence at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (MGHC), where, for thirteen years, she moved like a spirit among the nurses, doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists. Joan would appear at bedsides with her Art Kart overflowing with things that whizz and jingle, paints and paper, and other sparkly stuff to engage the children. The young patients, so busy making art and so busy healing their spirits in the glow of Joan’s companionship, would even at times refuse their scheduled pain medications so they could continue. Joan’s creative and healing presence brought joy, light, and reassurance to hundreds of hospitalized children and their families.

Over the years at MGH, Joan’s process with The Moon Balloon became the subject of research that demonstrated a measurable improvement in communication between young patients, their families, and their doctors for those utilizing her services.

In 2007, Joan founded The Moon Balloon Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a mission of supporting children and families, however defined, to communicate and embrace the wholeness of life through images. This may be the mission that Joan has held all her life. The way she tells it, things just seem to happen in the right way. 

“My journey has been spiritually guided,” Joan muses, “I sometimes recognize it only after the fact. Years ago, I co-created an inspirational book of poetry and artwork, On Wings of Light, with a friend, Joan Borysenko. Though separated at times by thousands of miles, we found that our work was always coordinated. We felt as if one mind created the book, from a higher source. Later, Joan [Borysenko] asked me to be Artist in Residence for the Spiritual Direction Program at the Claritas Institute. Becoming a spiritual director was a transformational experience and has helped me to bring Spirit into action in my own life.”

Today, Joan continues to direct The Moon Balloon Project with the aim of using art as a bridge to fulfill the larger vision of uniting humanity by sharing joy, sadness, and hope across the world. Joan has recently completed another book that tells the story of how The Moon Balloon has moved through people’s lives, gently guiding them to process and communicate their feelings. 

The Moon Balloon has a life of its own,” Joan says. “I just ride along in the basket.”

Joan explains her motivation to bring art into spaces of healing, saying, “In creating art and sharing it with others, we are providing the opportunity to open windows to a world where caring really does take place. What could be more important than remembering where to look during times of illness and pain? I consider it a gift to be on this journey and am excited about sharing the healing power of art, which is available to connect us to Spirit, the very source that makes us feel whole.” §

By Joan Drescher

The Boy Who Painted His Doctor  by Joan Drescher

The Boy Who Painted His Doctor by Joan Drescher

I see a frail child lying among a tangle of beeping machines and IV poles as I enter the isolation room, gowned and gloved and ready for art. Two bright eyes touch mine, and then catch sight of the Imagination Kart filled with art supplies.

“I want to paint,” said a tiny voice from the small face, distorted through the clear respirator mask.

I place tempera paints, brushes, and paper in front of the eager three-year-old child. He aims at the paper, but because of his degenerative disease, his coordination is not good. With large strokes, he paints the doctor, who had just arrived, standing quietly in a mask and gown. Then me.

Through the mass of blue tubing, he begins to sing while he paints.

Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder who you are.

Like a diamond in the sky, up above the world so high.

Drawing by Joan Drescher

Drawing by Joan Drescher

The doctor glances up, and our eyes meet, in awe of what is
happening in the boy’s painting. His joyful painting fills the white room—beds, hospital gowns, and rubber gloves transform into sunsets and evening stars. It seemed like golden energy was expanding into the room, filling even the IV poles with light and color.

He stopped for a moment, looked at me, and said,
“Now it’s your turn. You paint for me: I am Sun Boy. All yellow.
My respirator mask is blue, and don’t forget the little dots
on my mask, because those are my tears.”

If creativity is the thread that weaves through her days, the resulting friendships form the fabric of Susan Bayley’s life. Born and raised in Los Angeles and schooled in France, Oregon, and Iowa, Susan moved to Rhode Island in 1969 where she discovered sailing and the Rhode Island School of Design. Over time, she has found her place among friends through the practice of writing, art, graphic design, yoga, and creative movement.